Canadians want this country to be a leader, not a laggard, at summit on climate change
by John Cartwright, President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and member of the Good Jobs for All Coalition.
In the past six weeks, a number of remarkable events took place that speak to the future of our world.
First, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 181 countries to demand governments commit to serious action on climate change. Their demand – bring down the CO2 levels in the atmosphere to an amount that will allow the planet to survive. The “350” signs were featured everywhere, from the pyramids in Egypt to the beaches of Australia (350 parts per million is the level scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere).
That was followed by the release of the report by the David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute outlining the opportunities and challenges for Canada to fulfill a climate change leadership role.
The response has been howls of rage from Alberta politicians and the federal environment minister. They want nothing to get in the way of relentless expansion of the tar sands, regardless of the long-term environmental cost or the negative impact of the rising petrodollar on manufacturing jobs in Ontario.
They are not alone in their “drill baby drill” sentiment. A huge climate change denial industry is being fuelled by big oil, not unlike the cancer denial efforts of big tobacco that prevailed for decades.
But the reality is that we cannot continue the current approach. The future of humankind is at the tipping point. That is why the global union movement has coined the cautionary phrase: “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”
That doesn’t mean we have to choose a poorer quality of life or fewer jobs. In fact, there are millions of potential jobs available in transforming our economy. During the recession of the early 1990s, hundreds of tradespeople went to work retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency. The adoption of recycling and organics programs created more jobs than dumping garbage in landfills, and the expansion of district heating and cooling is a major success. More recently, TTC expansion has resulted in hundreds of new jobs helping to move 1.5 million commuters every day.
South of the border, there are many examples of what can be done. The governor of Pennsylvania tied the granting of alternative energy contracts to local production – resulting in the Spanish company Gamesa setting up four new plants to produce wind turbines. In California, similar efforts have been coordinated with hiring youth from low-income neighbourhoods for retrofit programs.
It’s not just green-collar manufacturing or construction jobs that are available. Think about the creative work behind the bus ads featuring David Suzuki urging the use of low-energy light bulbs. Or the engineering students who are pledging to use their skills to design systems that solve the technical aspects of stepping more lightly on this earth. Only a decade ago, LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for buildings were barely acknowledged. By 2008, more than 1 billion square feet of construction was being done to LEEDS standards in the U.S.
Here in Toronto, the city has developed its own green building standards to set higher benchmarks for building performance. Combined with an aggressive retrofit schedule of existing buildings, it will make a big difference in reducing CO2 emissions. What about the skills needed for achieving that? Already underway, thanks to courses offered in alternative energy, solar and geothermal at union training centres across Toronto.
The biggest challenge is to ensure that we capture the next wave of industrial jobs. In Germany, the second largest client for the steel industry is wind turbine manufacturing. Solar is already huge in Japan and California. Those developments happened because of careful regulation linking new products to local production.
Thankfully, the Ontario government has embraced the need for local procurement with its Green Energy Act. Within days of its announcement that companies wanting to access preferential feed-in tariff rates will have to use local materials, business started to respond. Whether it is foreign multinationals, local entrepreneurs or former auto parts plants, lots of new production is being announced to meet the province’s requirements.
Ideally, we would also strive for local hiring goals when opportunities arise. That did happen in a limited way with the redevelopment of Regent Park, and should be a feature of David Miller’s exciting Tower Renewal Project, a plan intended to make Toronto’s older apartment towers more energy-efficient.
Even if is not in our direct backyard, the commitment to have our subway cars made in Canada meant good jobs for those in northern Ontario. Closer to home is Signature Aluminum in Richmond Hill. It makes aluminum parts for the subway cars, produces ladders for wind turbines, and has just started fabricating frames for photovoltaic panels. Manufacturing is still the largest single sector in the GTA economy.
On Nov. 7, the Good Green Jobs for All conference wove together the themes of sustainability, equity and decent work for everyone in the GTA. It was an energetic gathering of youth, community activists, trade unionists, immigrants and environmentalists who want to explore the opportunities afforded by the huge changes unfolding in our world.
As the Copenhagen summit draws near, many of us feel ashamed that Canada is now branded as the world’s environmental laggard. It doesn’t have to be a false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment. We need to work differently to come up with the real solutions that future generations will thank us for.